Friday, September 12, 2008

TV: The Secret Life of a Degrassi Series Wannabe

Understated versus over-the-top. That's how I see Degrassi: The Next Generation as compared to this summer's American-made redo of the show, The Secret Life of The American Teenager.

The creators of Degrassi have been at the kids' TV-creation game for just shy of two decades now. They've always approached the need to entertain and inform by leaning on both equally. Just about all the hot button issues have been dealt with at one time or another in the seven-odd shows that have carried Degrassi banners. In most cases, bad things resulted in bad results. No glamourizing social ills that don't result in trips to Disneyland. Death, disease and disaster have been part of Degrassi forever.

As a result, Degrassi deserves its place amongst the great all-time TV shows for kids.

Naturally, there have been a host of imitation of the high-school versions of Degrassi state-side over the years. The successful ones have be the big-bucks school shows that take place in a universe not inhabited by you, me, most kids or the casts of Degrassi. Shows like The O.C., Beverly Hills 90210 and Gossip Girl ignore reality and make the case that money lets you get away with anything fiction-wise.

This year, the new Degrassi-wannabe has been The Secret Life of The American Teenager. There's a heart to the show, although it doesn't belong to the lead viewpoint character, Shailene Woodley's Amy. Woodley's in tough, as she has to play a wallflower, impregnated during her first and only time with the school stud. Wallflowers retreat from the spotlight by definition, so it's hard for Woodley to back away and still stand up defiantly for herself. Rather than sympathetic, she comes across as a whiner. And it's hard to see how Woodley can do any better.

On the other hand, her new boyfriend who forgives all after falling in love at first sight, Ben Boykewich, played by Kenny Baumann, IS the heart of the show. But he's too over the top, taking the high road at every turn to new heights. He wants to marry his 16-year old new beau after finding out she's pregnant by another guy. He behaves as if this situation is no big thing and makes grand gestures throughout the 11-episode run at every chance. His heart's in the right place, the response is just too much into farce to make him anything but a caricature. Ben's dad, played by Steve Schirippa, is more of the same. Both Baumann and Schirippa are extremely likeable, if not believeable.

Other characters in the story are stock characters written with broad strokes. The soon-to-be-father is a completely unsympathetic sex addict (we ARE talking about high schoolers, remember?) who you more or less hope somebody will run over with a car. EVERY girl, from plain to not-plain surrenders to his 'charm' knowing him to be a creep. Such characters do exist in less broad terms. It's just another case of the creators of the show not willing to give any character any nuance.

The school slut, the school queen virgin and the horny jock that bounces between them, don't have any sublety to their characters either. That the slut is a valedictorian candidate with daddy issues hardly qualifies as depth of character.

I could go on and on. The fact that Amy's philandering father (with the mother of the slut no less) and the school guidance counselor are the anchor poles of reasonability in this show says it all. At no point does this show ever raise to Degrassi levels.

And what's really bad about the show is the fact that Molly Ringwald, who plays Amy's mother in this show, is, well ... matronly in this show. The young high schooler herself of all those old movies and the first year of Facts of Life, looks tired and old, these 20 years later.

If nothing else, this show deserves a thumbs down for that reason alone.

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